We all know someone who loves kitchen gadgets: those people who walk into a kitchenware shop and instantly start drooling, as if utensils for cooking are as tasty as food itself; those people who are infatuated with the latest hardware that will get things done better and faster. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect that some days my wife loves her KitchenAid mixer more than me. Those kind of people — the home cook and professional chef alike who take pleasure in having excellent kitchen supplies. A book by Bee Wilson called Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat has just been released in paperback by Basic Books and could be a handy gift this holiday season for any gadget lover in your life, especially if that special someone already has four colanders in different shades of green.
Unlike our ancestors who, until the eighteenth century, made do with a single cauldron to cook everything (the original one-pot meal), modern kitchens are perhaps overly equipped with an assortment of utensils, tools, and accessories for cookery — some everyday essentials like knives and wooden spoons, others for special occasions like the turkey roasting pan that may only make an appearance once a year. Julia Child herself approves of using excessive equipment; in Mastering the Art of French Cooking she wrote, “A pot saver is a self-hampering cook. Use all the pans, bowls and equipment you need.”
Wilson starts her book by talking lovingly about wooden spoons as the most useful of kitchen implements, even if they are unsophisticated compared to the buttons, levers, and flashing lights of modern equipment. Along with knives, wooden spoons are the most rudimentary of utensils, but have been designed with all sorts of engineering and technological properties in mind – concave shape and length of handle for spoons; thickness of steel and serrated blades for knives. Still very simplistic compared to state-of-the-art cookware that can seemingly turn a kitchen into a laboratory these days, like the sous-vide machines for cooking vacuum-sealed food in temperature-controlled water with delicious results, or the next big thing in refrigerator technology which boasts of “a self-cleaning fridge that would also do a constant inventory of its own contents, moving goods nearing their use-by-date toward the front.” In contrast to these ultra-modern inventions, some old standbys that are still useful are really quite old, like the ancient mortar and pestle to get ingredients pulverized just right, and the medieval invention of the hourglass as an egg timer to achieve a perfectly soft-boiled “three-minute” egg.
Wilson reports that an increased interest in kitchen gadgets occurred shortly after the first Cuisinart processor appeared on the market in 1973. This mixing machine was so successful in revolutionizing how home cooks viewed work in the kitchen, by replacing time-consuming knife work with the press of a button, they sought out as many gadgets as possible to continue making their cooking efficient and fun. The right tool for the right job is usually the order of the day for gadget lovers and that is why kitchens have esoteric utensils that seem to have only one purpose. Many utilitarian tools are multi-functional, like pots and blenders, but we also have oyster shuckers, escargot dishes, and lemon zesters which all take some creativity to use for something other than their intended purpose.
There is also the question of functional versus decorative kitchen tools. The first known pots have no archaeological evidence of being used as vessels for cooking over fire, but were rather used for religious rituals or decorative purposes. Most modern kitchen enthusiasts are in the market for gadgets that are highly functional but also sleek, funky-looking, and colourful. Le Creuset cookware is known as much for its trendy colours as for its high quality.
The inundation of gadgets gave us many insights into the kitchen experience from the luxurious (bean-to-mug coffee with a hand-held bean grinder and espresso machine instead of instant crystals and boiling water), to the redundant (melon baller — why not just scoop with a spoon?). Even though it’s highly unlikely that such a kitchen enthusiast will ever have all the handy tools they need for their dream kitchen, this book is for all those people who love their mandolin slicers, meat thermometers, rolling pins, muffin tins, and pizza stones, and have an interest in learning how these tools have influenced the food we eat and cook.
DARIN COOK is a regular contributor to eatdrink who works and plays in Chatham-Kent, and keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.